America has never had a royal family — that’s why we obsess over shows like E!’s new soap The Royals — but if we did, they might look something like the Benjamins, the ruling clan in the 2009 NBC series Kings. Extrapolated from the Old Testament account of King David’s rise and reign, but transported from Biblical times to 21st century America, Kings gave Ian McShane a juicy, post-Deadwood role as Silas Benjamin, monarch of the Kingdom of Gilboa.
Despite the exotic name, Gilboa is actually just a parallel universe version of New York City with familiar landmarks popping up all over the place. King Benjamin’s council room, for example, is located in the Time Warner Center overlooking Central Park, while the grand hallways of the New York Public Library double for the grand hallways of the royal castle. The juxtaposition of the authentic and the fictional is jarring at times — particularly if you happen to stroll past those landmarks on a regular basis — but it also lends the invented Gilboa a tangible reality.
The rest of Kings is surprisingly realistic as well, with creator Michael Green taking the material seriously, but not so seriously that it descends into the kind of stiffly-acted camp that plagues other biblically-inspired entertainments. Having McShane as the star certainly helps mitigate that potential fate; even stripped of the glorious profanity that distinguished Al Swearengen (#26 on our “99 Greatest Characters Since Tony Soprano” list), the British character actor cuts a regal presence.
And he needs to project that kind of power, because his kingdom is beset by trouble from all sides. His brother-in-law, William Cross (Dylan Baker), is making big movies behind the throne, while his son and presumptive heir, Jack (Sebastian Stan), has a turbulent personal history (shades of Empire — he’s trapped in the closet) that sets his father on edge about handing over the crown. Into this teetering kingdom comes a literal David; David Shepherd (Christopher Egan), an ordinary foot soldier who rockets to fame when he takes down a tank called… What else? Goliath.
Yeah, that’s a cheesy touch. But it’s not indicative of the rest of the series, which really is interested in exploring the demands of absolute power, as well as the limits of belief. As Kings unfolds, Silas has to come to terms with the fact that Gilboa’s crown, which he insists belongs to him and his family by divine right, must pass to someone new. The first season comes to a close on an almost apocalyptic note, with the king turning his back on his faith and David fleeing into exile… from which he never returned as NBC declined to greenlight a second season. Obviously, the end of the story is already written (in the Books of Samuel, specifically), but it would have been interesting to see how Kings would have told it.
All 13 episodes of Kings are available to stream on Hulu and NBC.com.